Facing East River Supertower, Sutton Place Residents Volley Back with Rezoning Bid

The East River Fifties Alliance's rendering of what could happen in the Sutton Place district without rezoning. | ERFA, INC.

The East River Fifties Alliance’s rendering of what could happen in the Sutton Place district without rezoning. | ERFA, INC.

BY JACKSON CHEN | A Sutton Place neighborhood organization has filed a rezoning proposal in an attempt to block the development of a 90-story “supertower” and preserve the residential feel of their community.

According to the January 21 application filed with the Department of City Planning, the East River Fifties Alliance wants the area from East 52nd Street to East 59th Street and from First Avenue to the East River restricted to a 260-foot height limit, or approximately 25 stories.

The Alliance’s rezoning proposal was mostly a response to a real estate development group’s plan to construct a skyscraper at 3 Sutton Place near 57th Street. Bauhouse Group’s project, currently zoned in one of the city’s R10 districts, is expected to be constructed as-of-right and requires no discretionary review from city agencies.

Since learning of plans for the building in April 2015, the Alliance has been working to halt a project they feel doesn’t belong in their community.

“From 52nd to 59th Street and east of First Avenue, it’s a truly residential neighborhood,” said Alan Kersh, president of the Alliance. “It’s not like Midtown, where it’s a mix of commercial, office, and hotels; it’s truly residential [with] a range of demographics in our neighborhood.”

With a dramatically taller cityscape quickly taking hold in Manhattan, the residents of Sutton Place wanted to stand up to the developers and any supertowers they might have in mind for their neighborhood.

“When you build new developments in existing residential neighborhoods, you’re tearing down walkups,” Kersh said. “These kinds of projects displace residents that have been living here their whole life.”

On top of recruiting likeminded individuals, the organization enlisted the help of two urban planners — Douglas Woodward and Sandy Hornick — and an environmental and land use law firm, Carter Ledyard and Milburn LLP.

The group's rendering of how the future could be different. | ERFA, INC.

The group’s rendering of how the future could be different. | ERFA, INC.

The Alliance’s efforts culminated in the rezoning proposal that would restrict developments in the neighborhood to a contextual height, but also provide stipulations for affordable housing and incentives for community-oriented spaces.

According to City Councilmember Ben Kallos, who co-signed the rezoning application, the proposal also calls for Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) to be included in the new district. As part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s housing plans for the city, MIH would make the creation of permanent affordable housing a mandatory condition for developers in certain areas. Those who are eligible for the affordable housing units would be determined by where their family income falls relative to the area median income (AMI).

For developers in Sutton Place, the proposed MIH inclusion in the rezoning proposal would give them a boost in floor-area ratio –– a comparison of total floor space to the square-footage of the land a building sits on –– from the current zoning limit of 10 up to 12. If developers are interested in increasing their FAR to 13, the rezoning proposal would require them to add public amenities such as community spaces, schools, seniors centers, or medical offices.

With the organization’s proposal submitted to City Planning, it awaits a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, where the application will be reviewed by Community Board 6, Borough President Gale Brewer, the City Planning Commission, the City Council, and Mayor de Blasio.

According to Kersh, he expects the review process to go smoothly, as the proposal’s creators already have the support of CB6, both Kallos and Councilmember Dan Garodnick, and Brewer. Joining the roster of politicians in favor of the rezoning, East Side State Senator Liz Krueger also expressed support for the plan alongside organizations like the Municipal Art Society, CIVITAS, and other neighborhood associations.

The Alliance president said the only hurdle left to face is gaining the City Planning Commission’s approval.

As for the Bauhouse Group, the race is on for the developer to submit its paperwork to the Buildings Department. According to the department, its reviews project applications based on existing zoning regulations at the time. If the real estate developers have their application in before the city approves the rezoning proposal, the building could move forward as of right, with zoning requirements that have no height restrictions.

According to a spokesperson for the Bauhouse Group, demolition has already begun and the project has been moving forward. However, no building permits have been filed for the address, according to city records, so the developer does not yet have an unimpeded path. Still, it remains confident.

“Our project will be near completion by the time any rezoning would be heard,” said a Bauhouse Group spokesperson.

Ultimately, if the rezoning is passed, the Alliance and its co-sponsors hope to have an impact on other neighborhoods whose residents are tired of overdevelopment.

“Over-development happens because no one does anything, they say ‘as-of-right’ and they let it happen,” Kallos said. “The community here is doing something historic that no other community in recent memory has done.”

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